For he (Messiah) himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace… (Ephesians 2:14, 15)
Can anything be done to bring down the centuries old barrier between us? With increasing frequency, Jews as well as Christians are contemplating this question as both are at odds over the most likely diplomats for dialogue—Jewish-Christians who find their fulfillment by clinging to their Hebrew heritage. The mortar which keeps the wall of hostility intact is the continuing quarrel over identity. Who is a Jew? Who is a Christian? Which are the Hebrew followers of Jesus who claim to be both Jew and Christian?
Last year a lengthy, thoughtful article about “the Jewish-Christian encounter” was published in a Jerusalem periodical. The author, himself a Jew and an American professor of philosophy, quoted the remarks of Paul as an introduction to the long-standing and often bitter disagreement. Paul is one of the most well-known of those who claim to be both Jew and Christian, a man whose writings, more often than not, draw a volatile response, particularly from the Jewish community. Yet the Jewish-American writer would agree with Paul in noting that division does exist.
In discussing this imposing hedge between the two camps, the writer attempts to keep the way open for fruitful ccommunication by asking, “Is real dialogue possible between the Christian as a Christian and the Jew as a Jew?” In good fashion, we would respond with another question: “Can there be real dialogue unless there is clarity about the terms we use to describe the other side?”
According to the article’s author, who with the best of intentions has argued from the perspective of a persistent myth, a Jew may be defined (whatever else he is) as a non-Christian; and a Christian (whatever else he is) as a Gentile, a goy. So where in this melee of questions and answers does the above quoted statement of Paul fit in?
The apostle clearly refers to an end of hostility between Jews and Gentiles who had accepted a common Messiah, and not between two polarized faith communities and certainly not between Jews and unbelieving Gentiles.
At the same time he was never so naive as to believe that the hostility between Jews and Gentiles would cease just with the passage of time. He taught that in the newly-created body of Christians, both Jews and Gentiles who lived faithful to the Head of the Body, Yeshua, would know unity for there would be “one new man out of the two, thus making peace.” Paul’s imagery quickly brings to mind the ancient Torah account of primeval matrimony in which we read:
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they (two) will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
In the Biblical view, human sexuality was ordained to be a symbol of the total spiritual union of two distinct personalities. Males and females do not lose their identities in this physical-spiritual union, dissolving into one another like a saline solution. It is the merger of two equal parts forming a new entity, with each component remaining distinguishable. This, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, was the original ideal of male-female unity in marriage.
In a very Jewish style of Biblical interpretation, Paul applied this concept to the Jewish-Gentile relationship within the new framework of the Messianic community. Jews and Gentiles with their distinctive ethnic identities and personalities would complement one another in a genuinely harmonious spirit. The follower of Yeshua, whether Jewish or Gentile, is told to “remain in the situation which he was in when God called him” (I Corinthians 7:20). Another facet of this complementary relationship was seen in the actions and attitudes of the first-century Messianic community. Jewish apostles and Jewish Messianic “kehillot” (congregations) worked to bring a Hebrew Messiah, Hebrew Scriptures and Hebrew forms of worship and teaching to the far reaches of the Gentile world. Countless Gentile believers who shared a common faith with these transmitters helped the fledgling effort with moral and material support.
By working together in this way, primitive Messianic communities provided living proof that a shared religious faith can allow freedom for ethnic identity and expression.
However, both the encouragement to maintain cultural identity and the freedom to express the same in worship, were set aside when Messianic faith became part of an established religious system bound up with imperial and national establishments. A similar process developed in the Jewish community with the demise of the Second Jewish Commonwealth and the end of ancient Jewish pluralism. For centuries, two kinds of national religious establishments faced each other: on the one side, various forms of Gentile ethnic churches (Greek, Near Eastern, Roman, Slavic, and, after the Reformation, North European) and on the other side, a monolithic Synagogue. For about 1800 years these establishments determined, each in its own way, what a proper Christian or Jew was—in terms of belief as well as in terms of ethnic culture. This can be seen particularly in the opinion which prevailed within the Jewish community until about 150 years ago—to be anything but Orthodox was not really Jewish. Such an attitude is demonstrated today both in Jerusalem and in the ultra-orthodox Jewish quarters of Brooklyn, where Jews are recognized by their dress, religious symbols, cuisine, and distinctive speech. In a similar fashion, as late as the French Revolution, a major national religious service was held in Paris, where the Roman Catholic clergy and laity joined the revolutionaries in celebrating a public mass. Neither Protestants nor Jews were invited. One historian reported that the consensus was that to be anything but Roman Catholic was not really French.
Things are changing, however. After the period of Jewish history called “The Emancipation,” the Orthodox Synagogue could no longer drive out from the Jewish community those who did not conform to its practice. Movements Iike “Reform,” “Conservatism,” secular Zionism and Socialism sprang up within the Jewish community, as did the modern Messianic Jewish movement. The power of authoritarian churches to excommunicate nonconformist Gentiles also dwindled.
Though iron-fisted orthodoxies can no longer bully people into conformity to the extent they once did, subtle, unrelenting pressures are still exerted. As the saying goes, “A soft tongue can also break a bone.” Today Jewish believers in Jesus who seek to express their religious freedom and maintain their Hebrew heritage often find themselves in the front lines, defending the right of Jews to believe as Jews what they freely choose to believe.
Nowadays, the majority of Jews, in effect, say to the Orthodox Synagogue: “This is not our way in the modern world.” A major segment of the contemporary Jewish community, especially in Israel, goes so far as to deny all religious Judaism.
Quite logically they may say to Messianic Jews: “We do not accept your way, either.” But it is really absurd and irrational for the majority, no matter how large it is, to say: “Because you were born Jewish, you’re out of bounds as a Jew when you follow Yeshua.”
What! A thinking, feeling, free-choosing modern Jew is barred from charting his spiritual way in life in only one context—Yeshua? And everything else is up for grabs? Atheism, Marxism, Kabbala, Reform, secular Zionism, pantheism, TM, all within bounds. But if a Jew has no freedom to choose to follow Yeshua as a Jew, how “emancipated” is he really?
Ironically, at the same time that Messianic Jews must rebuff the attempts within the Jewish community to de-Judaize them, they must also battle against some misguided Gentiles within the churches who refute the Hebrew believer’s right to keep his heritage. Recently, at a Jerusalem gathering of Messianic Jews, a young sabra summarized the situation: “We are caught between two stools. On the one hand, the Jewish community is pushing us aside because of our faith in Yeshua; on the other, the churches are not happy because of our Jewishness.”
The young Israeli went on to point out that this stage of “betwixtedness” is also an opportunity and a challenge. First, we affirm to the Jewish community that being a believing Jew can be a free choice and not just a matter of genetics or ethnic pressure. Such faith brings fulfillment, as children of Abraham and as children of Adam. Secondly, to the Gentile world, especially those who are practicing Christians, the Messianic Jew demonstrates that in the body of Christ there is a vital, still functioning Jewish component, without which there can be no true breakdown of Jewish-Gentile hostility. There is a beautiful application of the ancient prophecy of Isaiah which Paul quoted in his writings:
“He (Messiah) came and preached peace to you who were far away (the goyim) and peace to those who were near (the Jews). For through him we(Jewsand Gentiles) both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”
Ephesians 2:17, 18